Life is never dull in the challenging role of tactician, reports Tony Bull.
THE ROLE of tactician is arguably one of the most critical on the boat. As the name implies, he or she is responsible for positioning the boat on the course and needs to spend the time constantly analysing the situation and planning how to react to changing circumstances.
The tactician is literally the eyes of the boat and enables the helmsman to concentrate solely on driving the boat to its optimum.
Successful tacticians start work well before the race begins. Prior to the event, read the Notice of Race and the Sailing Instructions carefully. On larger boats the navigator can help with a lot of this data assimilation, but the tactician should always be well versed and aware. You don't want to be leading up the second beat trying to find out if you go around the hitch mark this time!
Knowledge of the location you are racing and the influence of weather patterns must be addressed. Get as much information as you can and seek out a local hotshot for advice if one is available.
It is important to do as much pre-regatta sailing in the area as possible to familiarise yourself with the feel of the venue. I also think it is beneficial to find time to get to a high point overlooking the area and simply have a long look at the sailing area. This is fantastic to work out geographical trends and is so much easier if a few boats are sailing in the area whilst you observe; even better when a race in progress.
Sit down with the skipper and crew boss and go over all the crew positions. Delegate a few members of the crew to be your feedback people, looking up the course for wind, finding marks, etc.
First check the flags up the club mast and then the notice board for any sailing instruction changes. Have a private meeting with the owner/skipper/helmsman to discuss the day's expectations and go over the previous day's sailing.
Look at the weather forecast given locally and get on the internet to search a few sites and try and glean some trends in the weather that may be used to your advantage, such as late persistent shifts or prospects of a sea breeze.
Get out on the course and during the setting up period, look at the windshifts and time their frequency.
Discuss with the helmsman and crew which end of the line is favoured and what side of the course you want. Are you one of the larger boats able to find clear air quickly, or are you smaller and need to temper your tactics somewhat in order to avoid the crowded areas?
As the start looms closer in the final minute or so I find it is preferable to leave the start up to the steerer. With all the boats wheeling around and jostling for position, the situation can change quickly and often, and there is no time for transfer of information from tactician to helm.
Similarly with congested mark roundings the helmsman must take control and undertake the decision making role, as opportunities open and shut quickly. In these scenarios where there is no time for micro management then your role as tactician reverts to one of information provider. Sometimes you can find yourself with relatively inexperienced steerers who will struggle if left to fend for themselves at the start. If you need to take more control, try and stand in front or alongside the steerer so he or she has visual contact with you and can see you point or gesticulate. This clarifies what you want him or her to do and you don't just become another voice in all the hubbub.
It is all about boatspeed. Doing tactics can be a relatively easy job when out in clear air on a fast boat. Then you are able to do your own thing and all your tactics can be proactive and positive. Conversely when the boat is slow the tactics can be a nightmare. In any race the most crucial tack is that first one off the starting line. If you can be in a spot with good speed and height and can hold that position until such time as you choose to tack, then you should be able to set up your first beat strategy. If you are forced to tack away because you are lee bowed or gassed out, then you can spend the rest of the beat trying to find clear air and struggling to get to the preferred side. Sometimes no matter how extensive your planning, it is going to go wrong. That is one of the many vagaries of the sport. We are dealing with wind and waves, which will not always behave as we expect them to. I think this is where tacticians really earn their money. A loss has been made and it is a time to pull together and minimise it. Remaining upbeat is really hard, let alone keeping the crew positive, but the art of turning a bad position into a middling one has won a lot of regattas for a lot of boats. The biggest trap for a tactician is to be overwhelmed with multi-tasking. It is not possible for anyone to be a tactician, sailing master and helmsman's coach all at once. You won't do justice to any of those roles. Remember you are there as a tactician, so don't get bogged down in setting up the trim and feel of the boat. The helmsman and trimmers should be in charge of getting and keeping the boat on its targets and as a result, making your job easier.
Similarly liaise with the crew boss and tell him what manoeuvres you intend to call for when approaching a mark, then leave it to him to organise and delegate.
After the race
Have a quick word to the crew, go over what went well and what didn't, talk it through and get it sorted. If there are major issues that have caused some confrontation, I personally find it is best to try and shelve the discussion until the next day when things have quietened down. An unwarranted sharp retort in the heat of the moment, while tempers are still frayed, can cause ongoing problems.
Check the notice board for protests and results and analyse how they affect your regatta. Coming into the latter part of the series, it is is important to know who is where on the standings and what you have to do to give your boat the best result overall.
Probably the most frustrating part of being a tactician – other than a slow boat – is watching the crew clear up a problem when things go wrong and you really need to put in a gybe or tack, but can't. It is important to concentrate on minimising the loss by keeping the steerers and trimmers on their jobs while you work on Plan B for when the status quo is restored.
A good understanding of the rules is a must for a tactician, as good tactics in close quarters racing demands this.
It is important to be aware of the boat and the crew's capabilities, which can be very hard if you are not a regular on the boat. It can be catastrophic if you throw a whole lot of manoeuvres at a crew when they simply can't cope. So if the crew is still on a learning curve, keep it smooth and as pressure-free as you can with relatively early spinnaker drops, etc. Remember, snappy crew work always comes with competence and cannot be rushed.
Besides the patience of a saint you will need broad shoulders to keep the crew upbeat and motivated through the lean periods out on the race track.
So to be a great tactician you will need to have people skills in leadership, diplomacy, motivation and communication.
You will also need to be well versed in the sailing rules, meteorology, education and crew work.
On top of this you need a broad and expansive knowledge of the sailing environment and yacht performance. Sounds fun? It sure is!
The Rolex Sydney Hobart fleet ducks and weaves on the way to the Heads; studying the wind patterns on the Harbour beforehand will help to make the right calls.